Where Does Culture Come From?

shutterstock_126293858In a recent article featured in Communication Arts, Wade Devers takes a whack at agency culture, whittling it down to “the work.” He starts,

Culture. I hear that word all the time and, quite frankly, I’m getting really tired of it. But the reason I’m getting tired of it is because when people talk about ‘agency culture,’ they seem to leave out the very thing that defines it most: the work.

Whoah, man.

Sure, this is a bold, new, ballsy position to take. But if you haven’t been able to guess by now, I disagree with him. And, actually, after many of my coworkers read and discussed this piece, I found out that I’m not the only one raising an eyebrow.

Devers’ basic premise, that good work creates good culture, is flawed. The two can’t be separated like that; good work is part of good culture and vice versa. Furthermore, the environment in which people are expected to work directly influences the quality of the work they produce. Will producing great work help company culture? Of course! But it won’t beget great culture if there isn’t already something there to build upon.

In a similar vein, Devers conflates a desire for good culture and the desire to be known for having a good culture. I don’t think most people want to be known for their game rooms. Do you? I think they want to be known for that great idea for X campaign that came to them while they happened to be playing pool with their coworkers one afternoon.

And this is why his lists of “great” and “lousy” creative cultures are misguided. Devers switches from discussing agency culture to creative culture, which are two different things. But, if we look beyond that, I can pick out attributes that describe HB and other places I’ve worked from both lists. Is our office quiet? Are our spaces uncluttered? Our whiteboards cleaned? Are many HBers nostalgic for another time? Yeah! And for great reasons that don’t have to do with culture: we’re focused, some of us are neat freaks and many of us have HB tenure like crazy. These aren’t markers of anything “great” or “lousy” they just happen to be neutral attributes that are colored light or dark by entirely different things called company culture.

So when Devers offers a laundry list of ideas he’s heard that make him want to stomp, scream and shout about culture, he’s missing the point. It’s not the quirky offices and perks that make up a culture. It’s the people behind them, making the suggestions and opening up these dialogues that create agency culture.

For example, at HB we now have an “inspiration board,” which is actually this odd, metal wall hanging that people attach images and quotes to with magnets. Is the inspiration board what contributes to our culture? No. What adds to HB culture is the fact that we have senior staff who wanted a place where HBers from all sides of the company could share ideas, ask for opinions and offer constructive criticism. They then figured out how to turn this space into a reality and now the board is papered over with ideas and input from many of my coworkers.

This is the kind of engagement that culture is made of. It comes from peoples’ generation of an idea and their execution of it, more so than in the idea itself. It’s not about ping pong tables AND it’s not about the work. It’s about the people.


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